Landfill toxins seep into bedrock County seen as slow to test all wells

February 21, 1993|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff Writer

Like many of his Marriottsville neighbors, Arthur Grace's emotions ran the gamut -- concern, anger and even joy -- when he heard that toxic solvents had seeped into bedrock below the county's 12-year-old landfill and that a landfill expansion study had been scrapped.

One reaction escaped him, however.

"I'm personally not surprised at all that they've discovered this problem. It was only a matter of time," said the Sand Hill Road resident. "We've been trying to tell them this all along. I don't know why they're so surprised."

Mr. Grace, his wife, Christine, and two children have only a stand of trees and a small field between their house and the clay-lined Alpha Ridge landfill cell. Somewhere between the cell and those trees is a county monitoring well that in September revealed water contaminated with about six toxic chemicals.

Such substances are not new to the monitoring wells that ring the 590-acre dump. The wells turned up toxins nearly three years ago.

But the recent samples came from 75 feet below the surface in bedrock. County officials had assured residents the layer of rock would be a barrier between the landfill and their drinking water.

"They always said it was never going to get down to the bedrock, but then the Titanic was never going to sink, either," said Mr. Grace, whose family started drinking bottled water last week.

Tests of well water from about 45 homes in April and in October turned up no contaminants. The county health department will probably do another sample in two months, said Bertram F. Nixon, director of the department's Technical Services Program.

But residents who want all wells in the area tested say the county is dragging its feet.

L. Scott Muller, a local activist who fought the proposed landfill expansion, says such individual tests were promised when the landfill site was selected in the late 1970s.

Mr. Grace said his family won't wait for the county to act.

"We're getting another full-blown, independent test, not done by the county," he said. "Then we're going to get a water treatment system."

Independent tests will cost residents $250 to $500, but the county health department could do the tests cheaper in bulk, Mr. Muller said.

The health department's Mr. Nixon would not say whether the county will agree to test all wells in the area. Each test costs a state laboratory in Baltimore about $175 per sample, but the county has not been asked to to absorb those costs.

Mr. Muller and another landfill activist, biochemist Donald L. Gill, argue that sampling residential wells isn't enough because not all wells draw water from the same aquifer source. For instance, one of Mr. Grace's neighbors complained of a nitrate problem in his water, probably caused by fertilizer runoff, while water from Mr. Grace's well less than 300 yards away, has no such problem.

"Little is known about these aquifers and where they come from," said J. Gordon Warfield, who also lives on Sand Hill Road within sight landfill.

Mr. Warfield scoffs at the idea that bedrock could have been a barrier for toxic leachate from the landfill, or "dump," as he prefers to call it.

"That's not solid rock down there -- it's in layers. How does our rainfall get into the aquifers, if it's not through penetration," said Mr. Warfield, who had his well tested three or four years ago. "I guess we'd better do it again."

Mr. Warfield was a member of the Planning Board that set criteria for the landfill, and said he did not oppose it at the time. "I felt that we were going to have adequate protection from the county government," he said.

If tests show that private wells have become contaminated, Mr. Grace said, the county should bring in public water, just as it plans to do for residents near a closed landfill on New Cut Road in Ellicott City.

"They're going to have to do something to ensure that people's property values aren't destroyed by pollution," he said.

Last spring, the county tested Mr. Grace's well, but only after his wife threatened to call County Executive Charles I. Ecker.

What the county was discontinuing, Mr. Nixon said, were tests for more typical well problems, such as acidity and bacteria from septic systems. Instead, the department began testing for volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as the dry cleaning fluids and paint-stripping compounds that had turned up in bedrock test wells in levels as much as 80 times higher than federal

drinking water standards.

Concerns about the landfill have a familiar ring for Florence Cavey, who has lived for more than a quarter-century between Mount View and Sand Hill roads. Twenty years ago tomorrow, more than 200 people crowded the County Council chambers, protesting several possible landfill sites, one of them at Interstate 70N, now I-70, and Sand Hill Road. Back then, Mrs. Cavey tried looking at the big picture.

"The landfill's got to go somewhere. No matter where you pick, nobody's going to want that landfill," she explained recently.

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